Venezuela: Station not closed, but attempting to dodge law

Venezuelan private television station RCTV, owned by multi-millionaire Marcel Granier, began broadcasting via cable and satellite television inside Venezuela on July 16, according to a July 31 Wall Street Journal article. RCTV had previously been broadcasting via the government-owned Channel 2 airwaves, however the station's 20-year concession to use Channel 2 expired on May 27. The government decided not to renew the concession, citing the role played by RCTV in helping to organise the 2002 US-backed military coup that briefly overthrew the elected government, as well as more than 600 violations of Venezuela's broadcasting law.

A new public channel, TVes, was established to use Channel 2. TVes aims to provide space for small-scale independent media producers and to promote the cultural values of those sectors of society — mostly from the poor majority — who have been largely excluded from the large private media corporations such as RCTV.

The WSJ reported that RCTV has continued its anti-Chavez broadsides, interviewing representatives of the opposition, including a Catholic bishop who claimed that Venezuela was sliding towards totalitarianism. The irony that such broadcasting would be impossible in a genuinely totalitarian country went apparently unmentioned. reported on July 12 that Venezuelan communications minister Jesse Chacon said the return of RCTV via cable and satellite proves that the government decision not to renew its concession to use Channel 2 was not a violation of freedom of speech.

The restarting of RCTV broadcasts inside Venezuela flies directly in the face of repeated reports in the corporate media around the world, promoted by RCTV and opposition supporters inside Venezuela, that the station was "closed" by the government of socialist President Hugo Chavez. The argument presented was that RCTV was being punished for expressing views critical of Chavez, a charge always denied by Chavez and belied by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the media remains both private and hostile to Chavez and the peaceful and democratic revolution his government is leading.

However this hasn't stopped the US government from continuing its international campaign to use the Chavez government's supposed attack on freedom of speech as a pretext to attack Venezuela. A July 15 article reported that the Organization of American States had rejected a push by the US government for it to send a delegation to Venezuela in order to investigate the decision not to renew RCTV's licence. The Venezuelan government had denounced the US push as an "intervention" that violated Venezuelan sovereignty, with Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolas Maduro instead suggesting the OAS send a delegation to investigate human rights abuses at the US-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

However, RCTV's conflict with the government has not ended. In an attempt to get around having to obey Venezuela's broadcasting laws, RCTV has reorganised its operations under the umbrella of RCTV International, a related company that is based in Miami — although its signal would still be broadcast from within Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has responded by insisting that RCTV is still required to obey Venezuelan law, and that RCTV International needed to register itself as a Venezuelan producer. The WSJ quoted Chacon as insisting there was no real difference between RCTV and RCTV International, because "they generate all their information in Venezuela and their production is aimed at Venezuelan society".

Chacon claimed the shift to RCTV International was simply a "mechanism" to avoid obeying Venezuelan broadcasting laws, which include the requirement of broadcasting special announcements by the government — a tool used to break blackouts of the reporting of the position of the government by opposition-aligned stations. RCTV has a long record of breaking Venezuelan broadcasting law, has refused to pay fines levied for such violations, and is also responsible for numerous violations of Venezuela's tax laws. According to the WSJ, Granier claims registering as a Venezuelan producer would make the company "economically unfeasible". reported on July 25 that Venezuela's national telecommunications commission had stated that RCTV must register itself with the commission. An August 1 article reported that RCTV has taken its case to the Supreme Court, which granted the company an injunction that allows it to continue to broadcast despite its rejection of the insistence of the telecommunications commission that it register as a Venezuelan producer.

If an agreement is not reached and the Venezuelan courts decide against RCTV, there will no doubt be fresh cries of the Chavez government "suppressing" freedom of speech. However, the decision will ultimately not be made by Chavez, but by the Supreme Court — which has so far ruled in favour of RCTV. Furthermore, what is at stake is not freedom of expression — which has not been threatened at any stage of the RCTV saga — but whether or not a private corporation operating inside Venezuela can place itself outside the laws determined by the elected government. It is RCTV, not the Chavez government, that is threatening the functioning of Venezuelan democracy by its actions.